Washingtonian Forebears of Alcoholics Anonymous
By John L.
For several weeks now I’ve been engrossed with the Washingtonian Temperance Society, or Washingtonian Movement, which was founded and thrived a century before Alcoholics Anonymous came into being. The Washingtonians not only had many of the best features of Alcoholics Anonymous, but, I’ll argue, were even better in some ways. In their brief heyday, from 1840 to about 1845, the Washingtonians succeeded in sobering up tens or even hundreds of thousands of drunkards or inebriates (the word “alcoholic” had not yet been coined), who had previously been regarded as hopeless and incorrigible. Then, after less than a decade, the movement declined, for reasons I’ll try to explain.
Founding of Alcoholics Anonymous
My interest in the Washingtonians was renewed when, at a Crossroads meeting in Boston, I won the raffle for “any book on the table”. I chose Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: a brief history of A.A. Reading this history, I began to doubt that A.A. ever had a single moment of founding, or that only Bill Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Smith (Dr. Bob) deserve to be considered co-founders — although they considered themselves to be, and A.A. went along with them. Bear in mind that Ebby Thatcher brought the message of sobriety to Bill W., and someone else before that sobered up Ebby, and well before Bill W. got sober or met Dr. Bob, Henrietta Seiberling in Akron, Ohio had organized an alcoholics squad within the Oxford Group — and the best ideas and principles of A.A. really do go back to the Washingtonians. All of these things, and other events and people unknown, led eventually to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Nowhere in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age is it explained why Bill & Bob, and they alone, should be considered co-founders of A.A. Beginning on p. vii is a chronology, “Landmarks in A.A. History”, which includes this item: “1935, June 10 — Dr. Bob has his last drink. Alcoholics Anonymous founded”. But this is absurd. Why should the alleged event of A.A.’s founding be Dr. Bob’s last drink? In this appalling episode, Bill gives Bob a beer so that his hands won’t shake too badly as he performs surgery! Bill is conveniently vague as to why or whether the surgery was an absolute emergency, or Dr. Bob had to be the one to do it. It should be obvious that someone with shaking hands, recovering from an alcoholic binge, has no business performing surgery — but even many years later, Bill (advocate of the “searching and fearless moral inventory”) still didn’t see anything morally wrong with what he and Bob did.
Clarence Snyder angered Bill & Bob by asserting that he was the real founder of A.A., or at least as much a co-founder as they were. His case is strong. Clarence, along with Dr. Bob, was a recovering alcoholic within the Oxford Group, a religious movement with fascist tendencies. All of their meetings contained non-alcoholic Oxford Groupers as well as alcoholics, and were concerned more with piety than with sobriety. Clarence explained to Bob that Catholic alcoholics in Cleveland, where he lived, were prevented by their religious leaders from attending meetings of the Oxford Group. Bob said: “We can’t do anything about it.” Clarence replied, “Yes, we can.” He intended:
To start a group without all this rigmarole that’s offensive to other people. We have a book now, the Steps, the absolutes. Anyone can live by that program. We can start our own meetings. (from Dr. Bob…)
Bob was adamantly opposed to this, but Clarence was undaunted:
I made the announcement at the Oxford Group that this was the last time the Cleveland bunch was down as a contingent — that we were starting a group in Cleveland that would only be open to alcoholics and their families. Also that we were taking the name from the book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’.
The roof came off the house. “Clarence, you can’t do this!” someone said.
It’s done. … (ibid.)
Organized by Clarence Snyder, the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Cleveland, Ohio on 11 May 1939. The Akron Oxford Group sent a goon squad to break up the meeting; Clarence was physically assaulted, but the Clevelanders stood their ground. The significance of this event goes well beyond the use of “Alcoholics Anonymous” as the name for the group. It was the first time since the Washingtonian movement that alcoholics themselves, independent from religionists, organized to help other alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. Clarence was not an atheist or agnostic, but he favored tolerance for those of all faiths or none. He especially promoted Fellowship: “Not too much stress on spiritual business at meetings…. Plenty of fellowship all the time.” The Cleveland meetings, open only to alcoholics and their families, were a big step towards A.A.’s current alcoholics-only membership policy and its single purpose: to carry the message of sobriety to the alcoholic who still suffers.
The Akron group, still within the Oxford Group, was moribund. In New York, Bill W. — rejected by the Oxford Groupers as too uncouth — had only a handful of alcoholics around him. But the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Cleveland grew by leaps and bounds, and served as a model for the rest of the country.
In support of Clarence Snyder’s claim, a list of the first 226 members of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio, prepared in the early 1940s, lists three men as co-founders: Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith, and Clarence Snyder.
In sharp contrast to the A.A. imbroglio, we know exactly when, where, and by whom the Washington Total Abstinence Society was founded, and what its mandate was. Several men in Baltimore, who considered themselves “tipplers” rather than “drunkards”, attended a temperance lecture, intending to scoff and then report on the meeting for the amusement of their friends in Chase’s Tavern. Instead, the evangelist made such a deep impression on them that they decided to quit drinking together and to form a society to cure intemperance — to rehabilitate drunkards and inebriates. On 5 April 1840 these “six poor drunkards met in a grog shop in that city, took the pledge to reform, and organized a society, to which they gave the name Washingtonian.” (from Washingtonian Pocket Companion)
The six founders were David Anderson (blacksmith), Archibald Campbell (silversmith), John F. Hoss (carpenter), James McCurley (coachmaker), William K. Mitchell (tailor), and George Steers (wheelwright). (from Crowley)
The older temperance movement, led by the clergy, had regarded the drunkard with disdain, as damned and incorrigible; they expected him to die, thus reinforcing their prohibitionist narrative: alcohol leads inevitably to death. Washingtonianism, in sharp contrast:
makes special efforts to snatch the poor inebriate from his destructive habits — aims to cure as well as prevent intemperance. It considers the drunkard as a man — our brother — capable of being touched by kindness, of appreciating our love, and benefiting by our labors. We therefore, stoop down to him in his fallen condition and kindly raise him up, and whisper hope and encouragement into his ear, and aid him to aid himself back again to health, peace, usefulness, respectability and prosperity. (From the Washingtonian Pocket Companion)
And this they did with spectacular success. Within a mere five years, hundreds of Washingtonian groups were formed, in every major city in the country. By 1842, there were 23 Washingtonian Societies in New York City alone, with a claimed membership of 16,000. Many tens of thousands of hopeless inebriates found new lives in sobriety.
The similarities with the best practices and principles of A.A. are striking: above all, alcoholics helping each other in practical ways and through the sharing of “experience, strength and hope”. The Washingtonians developed the tripartite temperance story — which in A.A. is called a “qualification”: how one’s life had been destroyed by drinking, what happened, and what one’s life is like in sobriety. Like A.A., the Washingtonians held weekly meetings. Like A.A., they believed in total abstinence.
The Washingtonians anticipated many of A.A.’s Traditions. They believed in the autonomy of groups (A.A. Tradition Four), in avoiding divisiveness (A.A. Tradition One), and avoiding controversy on outside issues (A.A. Tradition Ten).
The Washingtonian approach was essentially secular: human beings, reformed drunkards, helped the drunkard to help himself. William K. Mitchell, the first president, was leery of the clerical leadership of the older temperance movement, and he rejected the premise that religious conversion was necessary for sobriety. In this respect, Washingtonianism was superior to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is vitiated by Bill W’s insistence that a “spiritual awakening” and belief in a “Higher Power” (aka “God”) are necessary for sobriety, and by the embarrassing religious claptrap found throughout the Big Book and the 12 & 12.
This is not to say that the Washingtonians were anti-religious; their meetings often featured the singing of hymns — although the hymns were not cloyingly religious. My favorite, included in the Washingtonian Pocket Companion, is the “Song of ‘the Six’ of Baltimore”:
Hurrah! hurray! we’ve burst the chain:
O God! how long it bound us!
We run! we leap! O God, again
Thy light, thy air surround us.
From midnight’s dungeon-depths brought out,
We hail hope’s rising star;
Ho, comrades, give the stirring shout,
Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah! [Five more stanzas follow.]
And I like to imagine the reformed inebriates really belting out the “hurrah!” lines.
Nonetheless, some Washingtonians were hostile to the clergy, and with good reason. In Narrative of Charles T. Woodman, A Reformed Inebriate (1843), Woodman bitterly recalls that “in my hours of degradation, no friendly hand in the old temperance times ever gave me encouragement to rise and live; but many were not only indifferent to my situation, but actually, in more ways than one, were my oppressors.” (quoted in Crowley) When Woodman took the Pledge of abstinence, and began a new life in sobriety, one clergyman, who ought to have offered him support and hope, instead went around the community, telling people that Woodman would soon be back to drinking. Woodman confronted him:
“I told him plainly that it was such religious bigots as he that had kept the drunkard confined to his cups for years, and that I considered him more in the way of the cause than ten open opposers; and in fact such men are complete icebergs around any reform, chilling the atmosphere wherever they approach.” (Crowley)
Some of the clergy were hostile to the Washingtonians, who seemed to be trespassing on their turf. Good causes were supposed to be led by themselves, the men of the cloth, not by mere laymen. The Washingtonian approach totally ignored sin; it espoused the heretical notion that drunkards could be reformed without religious conversion; it undercut the prohibitionist narrative, that alcohol leads inevitably to death; and it bypassed the sacred cause of Prohibition. The hostility of some clergy is undoubtedly among the multiple causes that led to the demise of Washingtonianism as a movement.
By the end of the 1840s, Washingtonianism had died out as a movement, although some groups lasted for many more decades (the Washingtonian Home in Boston lasted until the middle of the 20th century). However, it was hardly a failure. One may hope and assume that most of the many tens of thousands of reformed drunkards, with the support of friends and family, maintained their sobriety. One may reasonably imagine that on the local level, reformed drunkards continued to carry the message of sobriety to other drunkards. And the Washingtonian ideas lived on, even if underground.
Numerous factors have been suggested as leading to the demise of Washingtonianism. In my opinion there were two main causes: the failure to restrict membership to alcoholics, and the failure to maintain a single purpose: rescuing drunkards. Let’s examine these two, closely related causes:
Membership. Unlike A.A., whose membership is open only to alcoholics, the Washingtonian Societies were open to everyone. As the Washingtonian cause became explosively popular, it seemed that everyone wanted to get into the act. Walt Whitman describes a meeting at Grand Street’s Temperance Hall in March 1842, where there were not only speakers, but musical entertainment as well, including “a choir, composed mainly of ladies” and a glee club composed of “fine looking young firemen”. The vast presence of non-alcoholics tended to dilute the movement and to draw it away from its original goal; in addition, it allowed the clergy and others to co-opt and subvert the movement for their own purposes.
Single purpose. The survival of A.A. owes much to having a single purpose: to carry the message of sobriety to the alcoholic who still suffers. The Washingtonians also started out with a clear mandate: to “snatch the poor inebriate from his destructive habits”, but their original purpose got lost as non-alcoholic members promoted their own causes: prohibition, abolition, etc. These extraneous causes introduced dissension, and destroyed the unity that was necessary for the movement’s survival.
One conclusion I draw from the compared experiences of the Washingtonians and A.A., is that religiosity is detrimental to the task of sobering up alcoholics. The Washingtonians took off like a rocket when they approached drunkards with human kindness and understanding — without the condemnation and moralistic preaching of the old, clergy-led temperance movement. Likewise, when A.A. came into being in Cleveland, it got off the ground when it burst the shackles of the religious Oxford Group and began to emphasize Fellowship. Before this, Bill W. in New York City had been preaching at alcoholics with a religious message, and in a year he didn’t succeed in sobering up a single one.
Another conclusion is that A.A.’s survival depends on safeguarding its Traditions, and especially its single purpose and alcoholics-only membership. I have encountered A.A. members who think the Program is so wonderful that it should be open to everybody, and should embrace all good causes. As well demonstrated by the Washingtonian experience, this would mean the death of A.A.
In some groups we go around the room identifying ourselves. I will say, “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.” Then the next person will say, “I’m Elmer, and I’m an addict.” I have talked to some of these people, and determined that they are not, nor consider themselves to be, alcoholics, but they think that A.A. is also for them. When I ask if they have attended meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, some have said yes, but they didn’t like the people as much.
Here in Boston, there are very few closed meetings (for alcoholics only), with the result that many of those in attendance have only a vague idea what A.A. is about. Some of the more godly members really do believe that “working the steps” in order to achieve “spirituality” is more important than staying away from the first drink. We should not take A.A.’s survival for granted, but must vigilantly safeguard its Traditions and its best features.
References/ Further Reading:
Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., NY 1957.
Anonymous, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A biography, with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., NY 1980.
Leonard U. Blumberg with William L. Pittman, Beware The First Drink: The Washington Temperance Movement and Alcoholics Anonymous, Glen Abbey Books, Seattle, Washington, 1991.
John W. Crowley, Drunkard’s Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair, and Recovery, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1999.
Walt Whitman, Franklin Evans or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, edited by Christopher Castiglia and Glenn Hendler, Duke University Press, 2007.
Abraham Lincoln: 1842 Speech to the Springfield Washingtonian Temperance Society.
Milton A. Maxwell, Ph.D.: The Washingtonian Movement.
Silkworth.net: The Washingtonians.
The Washingtonian Pocket Companion: Washingtonianism.
The attached photo is of The Keeley League and was taken in 1898. It is on the cover of William White’s Book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, which we will be reviewing soon.